Plot: Finding himself down and out in Los Angeles, ex porn star Mikey Saber decides to crawl back to his hometown of Texas City, Texas, where his estranged wife and mother-in-law are living. Just as this dysfunctional family seems to be making things work, Mikey meets a young woman named Strawberry working the cash register at a local doughnut shop.
Direction: Director Sean Baker is one of the very best we have working today. He’s on the third of an unofficial trilogy of films that follows the lives of low-income sex workers in various parts of the country, after 2015’s Tangerine (Los Angeles) and 2017’s The Florida Project (Kissimmee, FL — in the shadow of a Disney World-affected Orlando). Each film is powerful, revealing, and sensitive — Red Rocket is no different.
Screenplay: Baker co-wrote the screenplay with long-time collaborator Chris Bergoch. They’ve become masters of giving you just enough information to keep you wanting more without ever giving away too much too early.
Performances: Supporting performances come in all shapes and sizes as Baker likes to find actors naturally, or “street casting” as he calls it: first time actors found locally (artist Brittney Rodriguez and waiter Ethan Darbone) or relative newcomers (Suzanna Son as Strawberry — he introduced himself at the movies in L.A. and emailed her two years later for the part). But Simon Rex steals the show. Who knew that the MTV VJ and Scary Movie 5 star had this in him? Sean Baker did. And he’s the find of the year. Not only does he give one of my favorite performances of 2021, I’m now anxiously awaiting any and all future performances. He has an energy that’s just hypnotic and it’s perfect for his slimeball Mikey.
Cinematography: They filmed this movie on 16mm and it looks amazing. Even AMC’s crappy, dark, digital projection couldn’t stand in its way. Cinematographer Drew Daniels also shot the film Waves, which is equally stunning. I love what he does with shades of red. He’s one to watch.
Best moment: There’s a lot to choose from, but I’ll go with the scene on a rollercoaster.
Fun fact: Simon Rex was offered the role three days before filming began. To avoid a quarantine following a flight to Texas, he drove to Texas and learned all of his countless, wordy lines in those three days.
Imaginary accolade: Best nude performance of an acoustic “Bye Bye Bye” in film history.
Everything is too long. Is it too long?: Despite clocking in at two hours and ten minutes, it never feels drawn out. Every scene justifies the next and you just can’t wait to see how it ends.
See it in cinemas or wait for streaming: Sean Baker is a big proponent for seeing movies in the cinema (see here), so it would be sacrilegious to wait and watch this one at home. I saw it twice in the theater, despite the fact that two weeks after its release it is down to one theater in the whole state. (Damn you AMC and your short runs for indie movies! — support indie cinemas!)
Rating: Four-and-a-half strawberry donuts out of five.
Credit: Plot synopsis from Letterboxd via TMDb.